Richard Young: Champion of Magic
Across the pages of OX Magazine, we endeavour to cover every possible art and pursuit enjoyed by the people of Oxford: music, theatre, art, food, science, interiors, and so on.
However, we will hold our hands up and admit that there’s one artistic endeavour that we have resolutely ignored in Oxford’s finest lifestyle magazine, up until now: magic. So, to coincide with the anniversary of the great Harry Houdini’s death on 31st October, we’ve spoken to Oxfordshire’s greatest illusionist, Richard Young, to talk trickery, showmanship and ‘mystery clocks’…
Hi Richard, how did you get into magic?
Well, I was given a magic set for Christmas when I was very young, and it was a hobby both growing up and throughout my teenage years. I got my first gig through a girlfriend’s dad who wanted a magician for a party, and another gig came from that, and it just spiralled from there.
How easy was it for you to turn this into your full-time job?
I don’t actually feel like I should take any credit for myself for creating a cunning business plan, because I’ve actually been quite surprised with how popular my work has become. There’s far more demand for magic than I ever realised, and that’s obviously very fortunate for me. Although I do it as a full-time job and I have done for 10 years, I don’t claim to be any sort of entrepreneur. Having said that, you do have to be versatile; I do lots of different things. I do close-up magic, and I also have – and this is probably the more interesting part – a double act stage show that I perform with another magician. We’re called Young & Strange.
The biggest successes I’ve had in my career have been through that – we do some of the largest illusions you can imagine, like disappearing people in boxes, and so on. Four years ago we were performing at the Edinburgh Festival, and we met a producer who was putting together a touring magic show, called ‘Champions of Magic’. We’ve now been part of that show for the last four years – four national tours of the UK, and this month we’re performing in the USA for the first time.
That must be incredibly exciting.
Really exciting, but again it’s not for me to take credit for; it’s very much the producer who has driven the show.
You’re far too humble. When it comes to the history of magic, who are your favourite magicians of old?
Well, we all know Harry Houdini, but do you know where he got his name from?
So, Harry Houdini’s favourite magician was a French guy called Robert-Houdin. He took his name, added an ‘i’ on the end, and became Houdini. Robert-Houdin is known as the father of modern magic. He was an incredible magician but he was also a watchmaker. He created these things called ‘mystery clocks’, and there’s one at the Magic Circle in London – it’s the most valuable item we have in our collection. It’s effectively a clock that’s also a magic trick: the clock face is glass, and you can see through it, and there are no visible mechanisms powering the clock, but it works. Bearing in mind here, this is from the 1800s, this is an incredible illusion. There are quite a few copies of them now, that are still around.
So presumably, you’re not going to tell us how it works.
Well, if I’m honest, you can find out if you really want to look for the answer, but given the amount of electronic and wireless technology that we have nowadays, it’s still fascinating to see a piece of glass that functions as a ticking clock.
What about in today’s era – do you know of any ‘up and coming’ talent in the magic world, or anyone that’s still performing today who inspires you?
For the last 15 years, in this country there’s only been two real names to come out of magic, and they’re Derren Brown and Dynamo. Both very much deserve their place in the public sphere. A producer who we’re working with for a TV pilot at the moment is the guy who discovered Derren Brown, and he still works very closely with him. I’ve heard some of Derren’s plans over the next few months, and they’re really very exciting. All top secret. But not really [laughs].
It’s interesting that those two have such prominence above anyone else.
Yeah. When I perform at weddings or parties, they’re the two magicians that people mention to me or ask about. However, in my opinion the greatest magician in the world is David Copperfield, and he’s still around, performing in Las Vegas. He was 61 last month, and he’s still creating new magic and pushing boundaries. I saw his show in Vegas last February and he’s still very much the one who inspires me the most.
When you’re creating a new illusion, are you utilising a technique that you’ve already mastered and changing the context and showmanship around it, or are you constantly learning new techniques?
It’s very similar to learning a musical instrument: you learn the notes, you learn the scales and you learn the classic pieces, and when you get better at it you create your own music and find your own sound. Magic is very similar: when you start off you learn all the sleight of hand moves and the methods behind the tricks, and as you get older what you’re doing is searching for a variation on a theme. The really interesting thing about magic is that there are essentially only six basic tricks: you can make something disappear, appear, move, or levitate, you can change something into something else, or you can read someone’s mind. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a coin or an elephant – it’s still just a vanish or an appearance. It can be difficult as a magician to make a trick feel fresh, and that’s the skill in being a truly great magician. One of many magicians’ biggest frustrations is reviews that mention “familiar tricks” – that comes up time and time again. Often, that’s actually quite unfair because the magician will have spent a huge amount of time creating a new method or a new presentation, but they’ll just see it as, “Oh, I’ve seen this kind of thing before.”
What was it like being on TV with Penn & Teller? How difficult is it for you to keep the showmanship and confidence on point in front of such a daunting audience?
That was actually the highest pressure gig it’s possible to do, because it really is a one-shot deal. The format is a TV competition where you get one chance to perform your trick, so if you do screw up, you’re going to be left on the editing room floor. We’ve been on ‘Penn & Teller: Fool Us’ twice, and both times I watched our performances back and I noticed the tiny things that went wrong. Perhaps nobody else noticed, but it is a little frustrating.
That returns to your analogy with music – a band or artist might make tiny errors that the audience won’t even notice. Everyone’s their own worst critic.
Exactly. The format of the Penn & Teller show is that you try to perform an illusion that neither Penn or Teller can explain the methods of. As you can imagine, it’s pretty hard to fool Penn & Teller with large-scale magic tricks, because they are total experts at the art. Both times we went on, we knew we weren’t going to fool them, so instead we saw it as an opportunity for us to perform in front of a big audience and exhibit our illusions on prime-time TV. That did actually take some pressure away from the gig, because we weren’t actively trying to fool them in the first place.
What are your aims for the future?
There are plans to take this North American tour into 2018 and 2019, so for the first time in my career I feel a bit of stability. For the past 10 years I’ve been worrying where the next gig is going to come from – such is the life of a performer – whereas now, because I know what I’m doing next year, I feel very relaxed. A pleasant place to be.
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